As a young senator, Tom Harkin was tapped by Senator Ted Kennedy to craft legislation to protect the civil rights of the millions of Americans with physical and mental disabilities. Sen. Harkin knew firsthand about the challenges facing people with disabilities from his brother, Frank, who had been deaf since an early age. What emerged from that process would later become one of the Senator's most important legislative achievements: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA, known as the "Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities," changed the landscape of America by requiring buildings and transportation to be wheelchair accessible, and to provide workplace accommodations for people with disabilities.The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990. Recently, Sen. Harkin said, "Years later, the ADA has been transformative in so many lives in America. Many of the things that have changed, younger people who weren't around before 1990 just take for granted, both those with disabilities and without." Still, there is much progress to be made before we fully achieve the four main goals of the ADA, which is why The Harkin Institute hosts an annual Harkin International Disability Employment Summit.
To preserve the intent of the ADA after court rulings weakened its standards, Sen. Harkin and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the ADA Amendments Act to ensure continuing protections from discrimination for all Americans with disabilities. This was signed into law in 2008.